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Cullen: Solid core gives Canucks reason for optimism

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Scott Cullen
4/9/2014 1:10:24 PM
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While the results of this season are obviously disappointing for the Vancouver Canucks -- disappointing enough to cost GM Mike Gillis his job -- this isn't necessarily a team in a terrible position. In fact, with a few improvements, this could very well be a decent team over the next few seasons.

I will go into more detail when digging into the Canucks' Off-Season Game Plan, which will be coming earlier this year since they are part of the non-playoff contingent, there are some reasons to think this is a favourable situation for President of Hockey Operations Trevor Linden and whomever he selects to be the new general manager.

This isn't to say everything is just fine, but there are teams in far worse situations than the Canucks.

A look at some of the positives:

Despite this season going off the rails, the Canucks ranked ninth in Fenwick Close, a measure of puck possession. Among the top dozen teams in that metric, only the Canucks and New Jersey Devils (who are an impossibly terrible 0-11 in shootouts) are not in playoff position.

So why is that a positive? The Canucks aren't going to the postseason, in large part, because they've been terribly unlucky around the net. Their 7.2% even-strength shooting percentage is ranked 25th in the league this year after it was middle of the pack -- 15th (8.0%) and 14th (7.8%) -- in the previous two seasons. It's very difficult for a team to stray too far from the average over a longer period of time and while this doesn't mean the Canucks can just assume that they will score more next season, it's pretty easy to forecast better luck for this group.

As low as the team shooting percentage is at 5-on-5, having the likes of Alexandre Burrows, Chris Higgins, Ryan Kesler and both Sedins, their big minute forwards, all under 8.0% makes it likely that there will be some recovery towards more typical production, particularly because the Canucks' top forwards still had strong seasons in terms of puck possession and as long as they are controlling play, the odds are in their favour that more pucks will end up in the opposition's net. Add a bona fide scorer to the mix and the odds of recovery would be even better.

The Canucks have a solid group of defencemen. The top four of Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieksa, Alexander Edler and Jason Garrison is more than capable of anchoring a playoff team. Garrison's possession numbers took a dive this year but, on the whole, this group isn't a primary issue. Even better, they have relatively economical options Chris Tanev and Ryan Stanton to round out the top six. Tanev is also a viable candidate to move into the top four if one of those named above is convinced to waive a no-trade clause in order to upgrade elsewhere.

There was a lot of talk around the trade deadline about Edler being available and, while it must be with the understanding that Edler was the unluckiest of Canucks blueliners this past season in terms of percentages going awry, he would be a top pair defenceman for quite a few teams and, since those aren't made available often, he ought to bring a significant return.

Also, as I noted on Twitter, the Canucks were on a 106-point pace through the first half of the season, but as January rolled around, they had some overlapping injuries. At some point, it was either Edler, Burrows, Roberto Luongo and/or Henrik Sedin missing time and they didn't have the depth to make up for those absences.

That lack of depth brings us to some of the concerns that the new management will need to address.

One, their core is older. Among the top six forwards in average ice time, 28-year-old Mike Santorelli, an unrestricted free agent coming off shoulder surgery, is the only one that won't be 30 by the time next season starts.

On defence, Edler (27) and Tanev (24) are younger, but Garrison turns 30 in November and Bieksa and Hamhuis are already beyond. This doesn't mean that the moment a player hits 30, that they cease to have value, but age makes professional athletes a declining asset at a certain point and, by age 30, the vast majority are declining assets and most of Vancouver's core is in that neighbourhood now.

Their goaltending situation, not-so-long-ago enviably deep, is decidedly suspect. 26-year-old Eddie Lack has had an okay rookie season, though if he had played well in January (1-5-2, 2.95 GAA, .908 SV%), that might have prevented, or at least slowed, the team's fade from contention and then his first couple weeks following the Luongo trade (.882 SV% in 8 GP) were a little rough as well but, on the whole, Lack has given the Canucks more than they had any right to expect from him coming into the season.

Lack has played well enough to have a shot at competing for the starting job next year, with a veteran added to the mix to provide stability. There are free agents ranging in experience (Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak, Jonas Hiller, Brian Elliott, Ray Emery, Thomas Greiss) or a trade option like James Reimer that could upgrade the position from its suddenly subpar standing and an above-average possession team with stable goaltending is most of the way towards the playoffs.

There is also the matter of Ryan Kesler reportedly asking out of Vancouver prior to the trade deadline. If that holds true, then there would be at least one blockbuster move to take care of this summer, but Kesler recently indicated that he intends to return to Vancouver next season.

Even if they are capable of returning to the playoffs in short order, and that's possible, the Canucks need to beef up their young talent throughout the organization so that, even if the Canucks aren't necessarily Cup-bound in the next couple years, that they have enough to be competitive as the core moves on.

Young roster wingers Nicklas Jensen and Zack Kassian still have some potential to explore but may not ultimately be top-six performers. Bo Horvat and Brendan Gaunce, first rounders the past two seasons, could provide solid two-way play when they are deemed ready to play, but the Canucks need more.

These are the challenges that come with the job for anyone running a hockey team and, given the Canucks' above-average core, they have some easier issues to deal with than some other non-playoff clubs that don't have that foundation in place.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Edler Daniel Sedin Kesler (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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